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Date: 09-19-2021

Case Style:

Anthony Allen; Stephanie Anthony; Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP versus State of Louisiana; R. Kyle Ardoin, Secretary of State of Louisiana in his official capacitu

Case Number: 20-30734

Judge: Stuart Kyle Duncan

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Plaintiff's Attorney:

New Orleans, LA - Civil Rights Lawyer Directory

Defendant's Attorney: United States Attorney’s Office


New Orleans, LA - Civil Rights lawyer represented Plaintiffs—Appellees with a violation of the “Chisom decree” claim.

The seven members of the Louisiana Supreme Court are currently
elected from these seven single-member districts.

Plaintiffs claim this system unlawfully dilutes black votes. So, in 2019
they sued in the Middle District of Louisiana under section 2 of the Voting
Rights Act of 1965, 52 U.S.C. § 10101 et seq.(“VRA”).
1 See generally Brnovich
v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 141 S. Ct. 2321, 2330–33 (2021). They allege
Louisiana’s demography would support two majority-black districts. But
Louisiana has only one—District 7—created as a result of the “Chisom
decree,” a 1992 consent decree arising out of prior VRA litigation.
2 Plaintiffs
thus seek to create a second majority-black district, alleging it could be drawn
in District 5, which includes East Baton Rouge Parish and surrounding
Louisiana moved to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. It
argued that, due to the Chisom decree’s continuing operation, only the
Eastern District of Louisiana has “subject matter jurisdiction over cases
involving Louisiana’s Supreme Court districts.” The district court disagreed
for two reasons. Principally, it ruled that Plaintiffs’ only aim is to redraw
District 5 and so their suit “falls outside the jurisdiction of the Chisom
[decree],” which concerned only the new district—District 7—spawned by
the Chisom litigation. Alternatively, even granting Louisiana’s premise that
this suit “collaterally attacks” the decree, the court ruled Plaintiffs could
1 The plaintiffs are the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and two black
Louisianans who reside in East Baton Rouge Parish. The defendants are the State of
Louisiana and the Louisiana Secretary of State, R. Kyle Ardoin, in his official capacity. We
refer to the plaintiffs collectively as “Plaintiffs” and the defendants collectively as
“Louisiana” or “state.”
2 See Chisom v. Roemer, 501 U.S. 380, 384–90 (1991); Chisom v. Jindal, 890 F. Supp.
2d 696, 702 (E.D. La. 2012); Perschall v. State, 96-0322 (La. 7/1/97), 697 So. 2d 240, 243–
247 (all discussing litigation and decree); see also infra III.A (same).
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No. 20-30734
bring such an attack. The court reasoned that, under Martin v. Wilks, 490
U.S. 755 (1989), “non-parties to a consent decree can in fact bring a separate
action challenging that decree except in certain narrow exceptions” not
relevant here.
The district court then granted Louisiana’s motion for interlocutory
appeal.4 The court stated that its order denying Louisiana’s motion to
dismiss presented this controlling question of law: “[W]hether the Eastern
District [of Louisiana] has exclusive subject-matter jurisdiction over all
matters involving Louisiana Supreme Court districts under the [Chisom
decree].” We accepted the appeal. See 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b); Fed. R. App.
P. 5(a).
The issues before us are all subject to de novo review. Certified orders
are reviewed de novo, United States ex rel. Simoneaux v. E.I. duPont de Nemours
& Co., 843 F.3d 1033, 1035 (5th Cir. 2016), as is a district court’s ruling on
subject-matter jurisdiction, Laufer v. Mann Hospitality, L.L.C., 996 F.3d 269,
271 (5th Cir. 2021). And a “district court’s interpretation of the terms of a
consent decree . . . is reviewed de novo.” Walker v. U.S. Dep’t of Hous. & Urb.
Dev., 912 F.2d 819, 825 (5th Cir. 1990); see also Frew v. Janek, 820 F.3d 715,
723 (5th Cir. 2016) (same).
3 The court also rejected Louisiana’s arguments that Plaintiffs lack standing and
that Chisom v. Roemer—which applied the VRA to state judicial elections, 501 U.S. at 404—
is no longer good law. Those issues are not before us. Louisiana also moved to transfer
venue to the Eastern District of Louisiana. The district court denied this motion “without
prejudice, subject to refiling, if necessary, after the Fifth Circuit renders a decision on
[Louisiana’s] interlocutory appeal[.]”
4 The court denied Louisiana’s motion for stay pending appeal. Louisiana did not
seek a similar stay from our court.
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No. 20-30734
The district court ruled that its jurisdiction over Plaintiffs’ suit was
undisturbed by the Chisom decree, which principally concerned a different
electoral district from the one at issue here. We agree and affirm on that basis.
So, we need not reach the court’s alternative holding that Plaintiffs can
collaterally attack the decree. To explain our decision, we first sketch the
decree’s origins. Then we explain why the decree, assuming it is still in force,
does not oust the district court of jurisdiction over this case.
The Chisom decree arose out of a 1986 class action challenging the
prior system for electing the Louisiana Supreme Court.5 Five justices were
elected from five single-member districts; the other two were elected from a
single at-large district (the “First Supreme Court District”) that
encompassed four parishes—Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard, and
Plaquemines. See La. Rev. Stat. § 13:101 (1975). The suit was brought
under the VRA on behalf of black Orleans Parish voters, who claimed the atlarge district unlawfully diluted black votes in majority-black Orleans Parish.
After years of litigation, the parties entered into the 1992 Chisom
decree contingent on the state legislature’s enacting Act 512, which occurred
that same year. The decree did the following. First, it created a new supreme
court district “comprised solely of Orleans Parish,” from which a new justice
would be elected when a vacancy opened in the at-large district. Second, the
decree created a temporary “Chisom seat” on the supreme court; this seat
would be filled by an eighth justice—drawn from a new slot on the Louisiana
Fourth Circuit—who would serve in rotation with the other justices. The
5 A more detailed discussion appears in Chisom, 890 F. Supp. 2d at 702–07.
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Chisom seat would expire, however, upon the seating of a justice elected from
the newly-created Orleans Parish district. Third, the decree called for
legislative “reapportionment of the seven districts of the Louisiana Supreme
Court.” Specifically, “[t]he reapportionment [would] provide for a singlemember district that is majority black in voting age population that includes
Orleans Parish in its entirety,” effective January 1, 2000. This last task was
accomplished in 1997 when Act 776 created a seven district map which
included a new majority-black district—the present District 7—
encompassing almost all of Orleans Parish.6 (That map, which remains in
effect today, is reprinted above). Finally, the Chisom decree provided the
Eastern District “shall retain jurisdiction over this case until the complete
implementation of the final remedy has been accomplished.”
In 2012, federal litigation arose over the decree. The dispute
concerned the tenure of then-Justice Bernette Johnson, who had been elected
to the Chisom seat in 1994 and to the District 7 seat in 2000. See Chisom v.
Jindal, 890 F. Supp. 2d 696, 707 & n.27 (E.D. La. 2012). Interpreting the
decree, the Eastern District ruled Justice Johnson was to be fully credited for
her service since 1994, resulting in her elevation to the position of Chief
Justice. Id. at 728. The court rejected Louisiana’s argument that it lacked
jurisdiction to interpret the decree. To the contrary, the court ruled there had
been no “affirmative ruling” terminating the decree, “nor . . . any request
that this be done.” Id. at 711. It also found that the decree’s “final remedy”
had not been accomplished yet and that the court therefore had “continuing
jurisdiction and power to interpret the [decree]” to settle Justice Johnson’s
6 Act 776 did not perfectly comply with the Chisom decree because the new District
7 “was not the entirety of Orleans Parish.” Chisom, 890 F. Supp. 2d at 706. But the parties
successfully moved to modify the decree to incorporate Act 776 as an “addendum.” Ibid.
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tenure. Ibid. The court “expressly retain[ed] jurisdiction over th[e] case until
that final remedy is implemented.” Ibid.
On appeal, Louisiana argues the district court read the Chisom decree
too narrowly. According to the state, the decree’s “four corners” encompass
all seven supreme court districts, not just District 7. This means, we are told,
that the decades-old decree “dictat[es] the perpetuation of the redistricting
finalized by the Louisiana Legislature in 1997” and “constitutes a continuing
injunction with respect to the seven Louisiana Supreme Court districts
. . . under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Eastern District Court.”
Accordingly, by seeking to redraw District 5, Louisiana contends Plaintiffs
are asking the district court to exceed its jurisdiction and “modify the
orders” of another district. The district court disagreed, reading the Chisom
decree to affect only the existing majority-black district in Orleans Parish. On
that view, Plaintiffs’ suit “falls outside the [decree’s] jurisdiction” because
it addressed only District 5. We agree with the district court.
“Consent decrees are hybrid creatures, part contract and part judicial
decree.” Smith v. Sch. Bd. of Concordia Par., 906 F.3d 327, 334 (5th Cir. 2018)
(citation omitted). They are interpreted “according to general principles of
contract law.” Frew v. Janek, 780 F.3d 320, 327 (5th Cir. 2015) (cleaned up);
accord United States v. ITT Continental Baking Co., 420 U.S. 223, 238 (1975).
We consult the contract law of the relevant state, here Louisiana.
7 See La.
Civ. Code art. 2045 et seq. Under Louisiana law, courts seek the parties’
common intent starting with the contract’s words, which control if they are
7 See, e.g., Clardy Mfg. Co. v. Marine Midland Bus. Loans Inc., 88 F.3d 347, 352 (5th
Cir. 1996) (“We look to state law to provide the rules of contract interpretation.”); see also
Frew, 780 F.3d at 327 n.28 (noting our court has “previously applied Texas law in cases
involving consent decrees concluded between Texas parties” (citations omitted)).
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clear and lead to no absurdities. See La. Civ. Code arts. 2045, 2046.
“Furthermore, a contract is to be construed as a whole and each provision in
the contract must be interpreted in light of the other provisions.” Baldwin v.
Bd. of Sup’rs for Univ. of La. Sys., 2014-0827, p. 7 (La. 10/15/14), 156 So. 3d
33, 38 (citing La. Civ. Code art. 2050). When a contract resolves a
lawsuit, it “extends only to those matters the parties intended to settle and
the scope of the transaction cannot be extended by implication.” Trahan v.
Coca Cola Bottling Co. United, Inc., 2004-0100, p. 15 (La. 3/2/05), 894 So. 2d
1096, 1107 (citing La. Civ. Code art. 3073; Ortego v. State, Dept. of Transp.
& Dev., 96-1322, p. 7 (La. 2/25/97), 689 So. 2d 1358, 1363; Brown v. Drillers,
Inc., 93-1019, p. 8 (La. 1/14/94), 630 So. 2d 741, 748). Such a contract “must
be considered as a whole and in light of attending events and circumstances.”
Ibid.; see also La. Civ. Code art. 3076 (“A compromise settles only those
differences that the parties clearly intended to settle, including the necessary
consequences of what they express.”).
The district court’s construal of the Chisom decree follows these
principles. The court first looked to the decree’s four corners and read it
holistically. See La. Civ. Code arts. 2045, 2050. As the court observed,
“most of the preamble” and the “great majority” of the decree “are devoted
almost entirely to the creation of the Supreme Court district in Orleans
Parish and the operation of its new justice.” That is correct. The decree’s
preamble frames it as addressing only the “multimember First Supreme
Court district,” and the decree addresses step-by-step how that district is to
be converted into today’s majority-black District 7. Thus, properly read in
context, the decree’s references to “the system for electing the Louisiana
Supreme Court” or to the “restructuring of the Supreme Court of
Louisiana,” point to converting the one at-large district into the present-day
majority-black district. Those references do not, as Louisiana argues, mean
the decree overhauled all supreme court electoral districts.
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Furthermore, the district court also properly read the decree in light
of the 1986 lawsuit it settled. See La. Civ. Code arts. 3073, 3076; Trahan,
894 So. 2d at 1107. As the court explained, Chisom was “a class action suit on
behalf of all blacks registered to vote in Orleans Parish,” claiming their votes
were diluted by the then-existing First District. See Chisom, 890 F. Supp. 2d
at 702. The Chisom decree sought to remedy that alleged defect by creating
the interim Chisom seat and the present-day District 7. Id. at 704–06. Indeed,
the decree is explicitly framed in terms of the “Chisom plaintiffs[’]” claim
that the “multi-member district system . . . in the First Supreme Court
District . . . dilutes black voting strength” in violation of the VRA. The
district court was therefore correct that the scope of the Chisom suit
illuminates the scope of the decree, showing it has nothing to do with the
present case.
In response, Louisiana points to the decree’s calling for
“reapportionment of the seven districts of the Louisiana Supreme Court.” But
Louisiana misses the context of that statement. The next sentence specifies
that “[t]he reapportionment will provide for a single-member district that is
majority black in voting age population that includes Orleans Parish in its
entirety.” So, while the decree does reference the anticipated restructuring
of all districts, itsfocus is on the one majority-black district—today’s District
7—sought by the Chisom suit. That suit had nothing to do with the other
districts and, accordingly, the decree has nothing to say about how they are
to be apportioned. Louisiana’s squinting at one statement in the decree
ignores the rule that “[o]ne provision of a contract should not be construed
separately at the expense of disregarding other provisions.” Baldwin, 156 So.
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3d at 38 (citing Sims v. Mulhearn Funeral Home, Inc., 07-0054, p. 8 (La.
5/22/07), 956 So. 2d 583, 589; La. Civ. Code art. 2050).8
Louisiana next focuses on the decree’s statement that “future
Supreme Court elections . . . shall take place in the newly reapportioned
districts.” From this, Louisiana draws the conclusion that the decree
“dictat[es] the perpetuation” of the entire 1997 redistricting, vesting the
Eastern District with “exclusive jurisdiction” over “all future elections” in
all “seven Louisiana Supreme Court districts” (emphasis in brief).
This overreads the decree extravagantly. Louisiana forgets “the
inherent limitation upon federal judicial authority” that “federal-court
decrees must directly address and relate to the constitutional violation
itself.” Bd. of Educ. of Okla. City Pub. Sch. v. Dowell, 498 U.S. 237, 247 (1991)
(quoting Milliken v. Bradley, 433 U.S. 267, 282 (1977)). The violation alleged
in Chisom was vote dilution in the at-large district, not in the other five singlemember districts or statewide. The decree was tailored to remedy that
violation. But Louisiana wants us to read the decree as “perpetuat[ing]”
federal control over all elections in all districts. That we cannot do. Even if
the decree supported Louisiana’s maximalist reading (it does not, see supra),
a federal consent decree cannot manacle a state’s entire judicial election
system based on an alleged violation in one district.A federal court would lack
authority to enter such a decree, even if the parties asked it to.
9 So, we reject
8 See also Frew, 780 F.3d at 328 (observing “courts must be particularly wary of
isolating from its surroundings or considering apart from other provisions a single phrase,
sentence, or section” (citation omitted)); id. at 329 (warning that a “results-oriented”
assessment based on isolated language “would be wholly inconsistent with the rules of
contract interpretation”)
9 See, e.g., Milliken, 433 U.S. at 282 (explaining “federal-court decrees exceed
appropriate limits if they are aimed at eliminating a condition that does not violate the
Constitution . . . or if they are imposed upon governmental units that were neither involved
in nor affected by the constitutional violation” (citations omitted)); see also Horne v. Flores,
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No. 20-30734
Louisiana’s argument that the Chisom decree extends continuing federal
judicial control over every election in every supreme court district.
In light of that, we are puzzled by Louisiana’s invoking “federalism
concerns” to support its argument. Louisiana’s brief assertsthat “federalism
concerns are significantly heightened” when litigants use federal courts to
“maintain injunctive oversight of a state’s sovereign functions.” Yet, on the
next page, Louisiana tells us that it entered into the Chisom decree “to avoid
further litigation over supreme court districts” and that the decree “is
binding upon [Louisiana] in perpetuity unless and until [the Eastern District]
says otherwise” (emphasis added). That is both wrong and baffling. Wrong,
because federal “consent decrees are ‘not intended to operate in
perpetuity.’” Guajardo v. Tex. Dep’t of Crim. Justice, 363 F.3d 392, 394 (5th
Cir. 2004) (quoting Dowell, 498 U.S. at 237). Baffling, because a state does
not champion “federalism” by trying to consign its supreme court elections
to perpetual federal supervision.
It is of course true that “institutional reform injunctions often raise
sensitive federalism concerns,” as they frequently “involve[] areas of core
state responsibility.” Horne, 557 U.S. at 448; see also M.D. ex rel. Stukenberg
v. Abbott, 907 F.3d 237, 271 (5th Cir. 2018) (observing, for the same reason,
that “institutional reform injunctions are disfavored” (citing Horne, 557 U.S.
at 448)). But federalism is protected, not by overextending such injunctions,
but by confining them to their proper scope.10 We do so here. The Chisom
557 U.S. 433, 450 (2009); M.D. ex rel. Stukenberg v. Abbott, 907 F.3d 237, 271 (5th Cir. 2018)
(both making the same point).
10 See, e.g., Frew ex rel. Frew v. Hawkins, 540 U.S. 431, 441 (2004) (“If not limited
to reasonable and necessary implementations of federal law, remedies outlined in consent
decrees involving state officeholders may improperly deprive future officials of their
designated legislative and executive powers” and “may also lead to federal-court oversight
of state programs for long periods of time even absent an ongoing violation of federal
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No. 20-30734
decree aimed to remedy alleged vote dilution in one supreme court district,
not to reform the whole system. The present suit challenges a different part
of that system the decree does not touch. The Eastern District’s continuing
jurisdiction to enforce the decree, whatever that amounts to, thus presents
no jurisdictional impediment to the Middle District’s hearing Plaintiffs’ suit.
Finally, Louisiana insists that—should Plaintiffs win—any remedy
would inevitably conflict with the Chisom decree, putting the state “in the
absurd position of having to disregard one court’s orders to comply with
another court’s orders.” We disagree. Louisiana’s argument again depends
on its misreading the decree to control all seven districts. As explained,
though, the decree substantively addressed only the eventual District 7. And
even assuming some possible conflict between District 7 and a remedy in
District 5, Louisiana cites no case showing such a possibility implicates a
court’s subject matter jurisdiction. It only cites cases teaching that “comity”
counsels one court to avoid interfering with another’s jurisdiction.11 To be
sure, if a proposed new district in this case sought to incorporate precincts in
District 7, comity issues would obviously arise. But this interlocutory appeal
involves subject-matter jurisdiction, not comity, and so the cases Louisiana
cites are inapposite.
law.”); Horne, 557 U.S. at 449 (“Where state and local officials inherit overbroad or
outdated consent decrees that limit their ability to respond to the priorities and concerns of
their constituents, they are constrained in their ability to fulfill their duties as
democratically-elected officials.” (cleaned up)).
11 See Brittingham v. Comm’r of Internal Revenue, 451 F.2d 315, 318 (5th Cir. 1971)
(“[C]omity dictates that courts of coordinate jurisdiction not review, enjoin or otherwise
interfere with one another’s jurisdiction.”); Mann Mfg., Inc. v. Hortex, Inc., 439 F.2d 403,
408 (5th Cir. 1971) (in light of “comity and the orderly administration of justice,” a court
should decline jurisdiction over a case that would “interfere[] with or usurp[]” another
court’s jurisdiction).
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No. 20-30734
To these problems with Louisiana’s argument, we add a more
fundamental one: Louisiana “assume[s]” the three-decades-old Chisom
decree is still in force, yet fails to explain why. The state’s brief says only that
the Eastern District “never relinquished jurisdiction” over Chisom; that, in
the 2012 litigation over Justice Johnson’s tenure, the court “disagreed” with
Louisiana that the decree had lapsed; and that Louisiana is consequently “left
no other option” than to “assume . . . [the] [d]ecree is still in effect today.”
That is weak sauce.
Louisiana’s argument glosses over what the Eastern District actually
said in its 2012 order. The court interpreted the Chisom decree to give Justice
Johnson tenure back to 1994. Chisom, 890 F. Supp. 2d at 711. So, it found the
final remedy “has not yet been implemented” and retained jurisdiction “until
that final remedy is implemented.” Ibid.(emphases added). Since then nearly
ten years have passed. In that time, Justice Johnson became Chief Justice and
has now retired.12 In light of those developments, one might think the
decree’s final remedy has been implemented. But Louisiana has evidently
never asked the Eastern District to vacate the decree.
In any event, we need not decide that question. Even assuming the
Chisom decree still lives, it does not touch Plaintiffs’ VRA suit. So, the
district court correctly ruled the decree did not oust it of jurisdiction. That is
the only issue we decide today. We express no opinion on the merits of
Plaintiffs’ suit or on any other matter pending before the district court

Outcome: The certified order is AFFIRMED.

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